The e-book is heavier than a typical book, more expensive ($300 to $1,500), harder to read and easier to ruin.
And yet . . . there is something undeniably fascinating, even appealing, about this electronic gadget. It does things no ordinary book can. It holds up to 10 books in its plastic case. By touching its screen with a finger, I can enlarge the type, highlight a phrase, or summon up the dictionary definition of a word.
Is this the future of reading?
``Do we know whether consumers will prefer a book delivered electronically to a book in print?'' said Jonathan Guttenberg (with two Ts, one more than the 15th-century Johannes, who invented moveable type), vice president of new media at Random House.
``It'll depend on the category of the book and the nature of the reader,'' Guttenberg said. ``Ultimately, the customer is going to make the choice.''
And the customer is unlikely to race to buy electronic gadgets that today cost $300 to $1,500. But in the eyes of some analysts, these devices represent one alternative in the future of reading. They won't soon replace ink and paper for pleasure reading, but in time might become a convenient option in business and education.
Besides the SoftBook and the Rocket eBook, both sold over the Internet, two or three other e-books will be available in the coming months.
The chairman of the Texas Board of Education, which has budgeted $1.8 billion for textbooks over the next six years, has already spoken about buying or leasing electronic devices for the state's 3.9 million students.
``This isn't necessarily a consumer product today,'' acknowledged Marcus V. Colombano, director of marketing for NuvoMedia in Palo Alto, Calif., which makes the Rocket eBook. Colombano said the device is aimed at ``early adopters'' of technology and business readers who read ``to be competitive.''
Clearly, 1998 isn't the year of the electronic book. Maybe 1999 won't be either. But that time is coming.
``It's still early,'' said Roger F. Fidler, coordinator of the information design laboratory at Kent State University. ``The display technology is not there yet to make it comfortable for reading on these devices. But what we're seeing now is the beginning of the ramp-up toward the acceptance of e-books.''
What makes that possible, in part, is our growing familiarity with technology. More and more people have computers - and increasingly, are using them to buy books and other goods on the Internet, in the same kind of process used to buy an electronic text.
And millions are using tiny digital organizers such as the Palm Pilot to track appointments, keep addresses and respond to e-mail (and even, incredibly, to read books).
In addition, the quality of liquid crystal display screens is improving, although analysts agree it's still vastly inferior to the clarity of ink on paper. And new lightweight and flat display technologies are on the horizon.
A big question, Fidler said, is whether the companies can agree on standards. Industry talks are underway. Right now, the electronic text for a Rocket eBook won't work on a SoftBook. The PDF format used by Everybook doesn't fit either of the others. ``Until there is a common standard, people will be very suspect about buying these devices,'' Fidler said.
If anyone gets it right, there's money to be made. SoftBook Press, of Menlo Park, Calif., said the potential market is huge. In 1996 more than $70 billion was spent by businesses, consumers and educational organizations on books, magazines, newspapers and other information.
Others in the industry say, more conservatively, that e-books could become 10 percent of online book sales.
Among the earliest e-books:
* The Rocket eBook, whose investors include Barnes & Noble and media giant Bertelsmann AG, which owns Random House. The $499 eBook - http://www.rocket-ebook.com - weighs 1.25 lbs., has a monochrome screen that measures 5.6 inches diagonally, and has a battery life of 17 hours and up. The size of a paperback novel, it requires the use of a computer to download text over the Internet.
* The SoftBook - http://www.softbook.com - the size of a clipboard, weighs 2.9 pounds and has a 9.5-inch monochrome screen. Battery life is 3 hours or more. It has a distinctive leather cover flap. The book is $299 with a contract to order $19.95 worth of material every month for the next 24 months, or $599 outright. It has a built-in modem and plugs directly into a phone line to download text. Books must be purchased from its own network.
* The EB Dedicated Reader from Everybook - http://www.everybook.net - in Middletown, Pa., near Harrisburg, is expected to debut in the spring. It will be the most expensive, at $1,500, and the most like a book in shape, with twin hinged color panels. It also will be the heaviest, at 3.7 pounds, and have the largest screens, 13.3 inches.
``We believe the real competition we have is not an electronic device but paper,'' said Daniel Munyan, Everybook's president and founder. ``We believe the book, as it appears, is perfect. We want to add features to what the book already does. We don't want to take away anything.''
What he wants to add to the book is mass storage (his e-book will hold 1,000 books on a removable card); around-the-clock access to a nearly unlimited bookstore, such as what the Internet offers; and instant delivery.
Munyan said his electronic book is not aimed at ordinary consumers, but at doctors, lawyers, pharmaceutical workers, engineers and other professionals who spend a lot of money to frequently update reference materials. Less expensive versions for the education and consumer markets will follow, he said.
SoftBook, too, said it hopes to appeal to business and government users. ``We're primarily going after the person who must read a lot of essential information regularly,'' said Jim Sachs, chairman and chief executive of SoftBook.
Sachs said SoftBook would be useful for businesses that need to load and update the same information regularly for many employees - for example, drug-company salespeople. Its nearly three-pound weight ``is a fraction of what they'd otherwise be carrying around,'' he said.
Munyan said the gadgets are aimed at businesses because they can afford them. Electronic books arent't meant to be mass-market replacements for paperback novels, he says, and they shouldn't be judged as such. But the SoftBook and the Rocket eBook are just as clearly hoping for consumer buzz, because their demo models offer not just business tomes but Alice in Wonderland and Angela's Ashes.
``I don't see electronic books replacing actual books, except in certain categories. I see it expanding the availability of reading materials, just as videotapes expanded the market for movies,'' said Sachs, who came up with the idea of an electronic book in August 1995, when he ran out of things to read on a flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong.
Trying out the SoftBook and the eBook over several weeks, some of their advantages and disadvantages become clear. Both are hard to read in an office with overhead lights, because of the glare. Their backlit screens are easiest to read in a dimly lit environment or one with indirect light.
The eBook, which fits snugly in the hand, has a dictionary, which is wonderful if limited: it didn't, for example, have ``obi,'' a kimono sash, a word from Memoirs of a Geisha. Reading can be little frustrating because the eBook lacks page numbers, and measures in percentages (who ever thought, gee, I'd like to read up to 39 percent tonight?). And it is ill-suited for graphics; without any maps, Fodor's Bermuda 1998 seemed useless to me. (Colombano said it was up to the publisher to provide those.)
It took SoftBook three tries to ship me a demo model that worked. The first had a broken control, the second had obsolete software. Even with the third, I still had trouble connecting to its network.
The SoftBook has a larger screen than the eBook, making it easier to follow the text, and has page numbers which change with the small and large fonts. It has adjustable brightness and contrast, though the eBook still has the edge on readability.
The SoftBook, which uses Web-page HTML formatting, says it can handle complex graphics. It's also possible to send your own documents over the Internet into the SoftBook. It comes with a plastic stylus, which can highlight words or draw on the screen. Both it and the eBook can search for words.
The reading choices are presently limited. As of last week, Barnes & Noble's Internet site listed about 150 titles for the eBook. For a recent book, such as Joseph J. Ellis' biography of Thomas Jefferson, American Sphinx, the electronic version was the same price as the discounted paperback, $11.20.
Why should an electronic book cost as much as a printed text, when analysts say that publishers can save 40 percent to 60 percent of their costs? Because finding ways to make text attractive on-screen is an R&D project that costs money, says Guttenberg, of Random House.
Last week, SoftBook had seven titles available: three classics and four business books. But its bookstore's ``grand opening'' wasn't until this week, and it planned to have 100 titles by year's end, a spokeswoman said. It also has a free daily news summary.
Maureen Fleming, an analyst at the Gartner Group in Stamford, Conn., said e-books make good sense for publishers who can cut their printing and inventory costs and almost ``print on demand'' electronically.
But she's much more skeptical about why consumers want or need such a gadget. She said it's neither entertaining enough nor useful enough to justify its purchase. It might become more useful if it added the features of a PalmPilot or another digital organizer, she said.
``It's difficult to understand why someone would spend several hundred dollars on a device that only reads books,'' Fleming said.
Fidler, who once ran a design lab for Knight Ridder Inc. (which owns The Inquirer), plans to test the Everybook and the SoftBook with journalism classes at Kent State in the spring. It'll take a few years until the devices are truly useful, he said. Until then, everyone should be patient.
``I'm frightened that the hype surrounding this - and in the next year, you'll see a lot of hype - will disappoint people. The reality won't match expectations,'' Fidler said.
``What we're establishing at this point is a beachhead.''